Friday, April 30, 2010

Unga Unguarded: A BYU Cougar Under College Football's Microscope

Running has never been a staple of Brigham Young University's football program.  Names like Detmer and McMahon have always defined the Cougar offense.  Sarkisian, Beck, and Hall are among the men who have best worn the "Y" in recent years. Even the Young family itself is in the business of passing, having produced one of the better left-handed quarterbacks to ever play in the NFL.  To put it mildly, BYU passes, and has always passed, with colors flying, save only for one small category: assimilation.

To say that a university founded on the principles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) wanders slightly from the beaten path of modern American post-secondary education is only an approach shot to the truth.  On its Provo, Utah campus and elsewhere, the bylaws of BYU demand that its students and faculty hold themselves to "the highest standards of honor, integrity, morality, and consideration of others in personal behavior."

Veiled extremism it is not; although some might want to float the notion that it is cult-like in its existence, BYU more closely resembles something of a social utopia, one in which men and women are asked to treat their peers with the respect and courtesy that might otherwise be reserved for close family members and well-respected adults.  For that, it also seems encased in a bubble at times, a bubble which draws many a confused glance and its fair share of criticism for the uniquely lofty expectations it professes - after all, aren't these are men and women attending their first college classes still trying to find their way in the world? 

Harvey Unga is, by normal definitions, one of these men.  Entering his senior year, however, he is something much rarer than the prototypical Cougar. He's a runner by blood (his dad was a Cougar running back in the 1980s), and he has lots of local support, having grown up and gone to school in Provo. In his time in the BYU backfield, Unga has amassed more yards than any back before him, having just completed his third straight 1,000-yd./10 TD season for a team that finished the year ranked No. 12 in the country.

To put that performance in perspective, Unga ranked 37th in the nation in rushing, ahead of highly touted first-round draft pick CJ Spiller; he was also one of only three running backs to finish in the top 40 in rushing while playing in an offense ranked in the top 20 in passing.

"I'm [just] Harvey," he said in a September interview after breaking his finger, humbly deflecting the notion that he played like a superhero on the field. "Without [fullback Manase Tonga] or the line, I'm nothing."      

Nothing? Nothing short of outstanding, maybe. But who would ever know? Unga's luster-lacking running style, his school's non-BCS status and his distance from East Coast media outlets have all helped reduce a  6'0" 237-pound freighter of a man to little more than a cool train set, a small-scale exhibition of considerable force that seems limited almost exclusively to recognition within the Mountain West.  The modesty his school expects had Unga setting a good example, but minding virtue had not made him into a household name.

Two Fridays ago, on the first day of April exams in Provo, the Cougar athletic department released a statement saying the Unga had withdrawn from school "as a result of a violation of the BYU honor code."  In addition to Unga, junior women's basketball player Keilani Moeaki was mentioned in the release, with the school citing that she had made the same decision on the same grounds.

If you are not familiar with Brigham Young's honor code, you should know that although it is summarized simply in some places, it is actually a 12-page monolith that more or less covers the whole nine yards of student life on its campus.  However, when abridged, the second tenet is just six words: Live a chaste and honest life.

Artlessly, people bolted to conclusions because two athletes, male and female, were mentioned in the same press release.  The critics had reason to do so, too: the two had been previously engaged and were still dating in recent weeks, according to an area newspaper.  But while making that assumption shows a logical progression of thought, it also shows a lack of respect for the athletes and the honor code itself. 

The biggest percentage of the honor code deals with academic violations, which are just as plausible given the intensified workload that is common at this time of year. So, for example, if Unga were to have plagiarized or falsified a source in a paper for one of his classes, he could conceivably withdraw prior to the Honor Code Office adjudicating his violation.    

That's not to imply that Unga's violation was premeditated, since students that agree to live by BYU's honor code probably don't enter the university with the intention of violating it; some of the principles mentioned in the abridged version (respect others, use clean language) do instruct on everyday actions that for most people are largely spontaneous and instinctual rather than carefully conceived.  Having said that, although all commands of the code appear to be treated equally, it would not be surprising for some to consider an act like drinking alcohol a more serious violation (and worthy of withdrawing oneself from school) than calling another student an idiot.

The confidentiality adhered to by the BYU administration in regard to any honor code violation is an admirable maintenance of student privacy, but in this case it is a football-sized thorn in the university's side. The longer it takes for Unga to figure out his situation, the more the already-drawn conclusions will solidify in the minds of the public.     

It is clear through Unga's decision not to declare for the NFL draft this past January that he wants to return for his senior year.  Due to the fact that he withdrew, there is no further investigation required by the Honor Code Office; the determination regarding readmission instead lands in the lap of BYU's dean of students, so long as Unga can obtain an endorsement from his local bishop.

"Harvey's first choice and what he is fighting diligently for and trying to express to the administration at BYU is that he wants to be back," head coach Bronco Mendenhall told the Salt Lake Tribune. "To stay at BYU... That is his hope. That is his intent, and that is what he would like to do."

But do the 30,000 other BYU students, all of whom are bound by the same LDS code that Unga violated, feel the same way?

Mendenhall has said that he will give his full support to whatever course of action Unga undertakes (or is forced to undertake), which is not surprising for a coach who is placed precariously on the edge of a moral precipice.  On the one hand, another blue ribbon season from his prized hoss would do wonders for an offense that graduated its starting quarterback and top receiver to the NFL.  On the other, it would be hard to find fault with the assertion that Unga's actions have, in the eyes of some, tainted his ability to represent all that BYU stands for.

For fans and fellow students, the conflict is no less heart-wrenching.  Is it permissible to let a classmate tarnish his own reputation and that of his peers and still admit him back into the fold, onto the field where the institution they all embody is most prominent in the public eye? Is it wrong to find a fault in one person such that he should no longer be thought to personify a special establishment, a unique way of life?  Would this decision be treated the same way if it involved someone who was not a public figure?  All are questions waiting to be answered.

As good a runner as he is, it should be noted that Harvey Unga doesn't appear to be making a dash toward the NFL Supplemental draft, Division II football or any other harbor that might protect him from dealing with his mistakes directly.  If he really does want to right his ship "in the most desperate way," he's started the right way, gathering his own fumble.  Whether or not he'll make it back to the line of scrimmage is not entirely under his control, but at least he's willing to put his shoulder down before he gives up.    

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